Haverford waited impatiently for Abersham's door to open, the seconds seeming like hours.
When Haverford had stopped at the Firthley's hotel room on his way to the boy's pied-a-terre—that he wouldn't even have, if not for his mother's largesse—Firthley had assured the duke he was thoroughly convinced his nephew had cleaned up his life, and—aside from relations with his parents—Abersham could be trusted to act with honour and sound judgment.
"I do not know this Penchley fellow, so I cannot assign him a motive," Firthley had said, "but I am aware, as are you, that the lad has others working against him here and in Paris, trying to discredit him—either with your daughter or Society in general. I have never, even for a moment, seen sign of such infamy from my nephew, and were you to consider it without Lady Sarah in the equation, you would say the same."
Firthley seemed convinced, but Haverford could not take his daughter out of the images in his mind of Abersham's misdeeds. Penchley had painted a perfectly clear picture.
"It is not a pretty story, Your Grace," Penchley had stammered when confronted directly about his knowledge of Lord Abersham. "And as there is no direct evidence, I should hate the young man to be defamed if he is, in fact, innocent." He wrung his hands, an enormously troubled look crossing his face. "But I cannot see how..." Penchley took another few minutes of babbling to convince himself to tell the tales there was no question of him hiding from Haverford. "But if he has asked for Lady Sarah's hand... of course, a father must make inquiries. She is such a beautiful girl, an innocent angel; it would be a travesty were he to... No. No, I cannot allow it. Your Grace, I will be pleased to share what I know."
Haverford almost wished he hadn't. He would never be able to erase the images from his mind, and he wasn't sure how he could ever speak to Nick and Bella of their son again without losing his stomach.
Beating and torturing girls? Unwilling victims plucked from the streets? Bloodstains in every room? It cannot be true. The boy had been wild, and Haverford himself bore part of the blame for that. But he had never been vicious.
And, in all fairness, as Penchley had stated, no perfect evidence existed, but the weight of the circumstantial was profound. Penchley had heard it directly from the lips of one of the boys' alleged victims:
"She said they had made her a pet, Your Grace, the four of them, and kept her caged and chained, under threat they would dispose of her, should she try to escape. She did escape, thank Heavens, with the assistance of a young man who subsequently helped her recover herself, but he was forced to bear the onus of their poor treatment of her, as you might imagine. Her stories were quite..."
"I will hear them now in their entirety, Penchley, or I will have you reassigned to Outer Mongolia."
Penchley had outlined the most horrific abuses, then added testimony by a maid paid to clean after one of their bacchanals: "'Blood in every room,' she said, Your Grace. 'splashed around like they were swinging someone's severed arm.'"
Three young men of Abersham's acquaintance—Eton and Cambridge associates who were attending the University of France, not Abersham's school—had spoken to Penchley, all telling the same story of Abersham bragging about keeping a girl who would do the bidding of anyone he ordered.
Finally, as though to soften the blows that had come with each new revelation, Penchley had ended with, "And of course, boys will be boys, and the Comtesse de Lodève is known for her appetite for young men, but she has never before... as I understand it... she made complaint to the king, Your Grace. His Majesty was not convinced by her claims, it should be noted, but he was, perhaps, not aware of the totality of Lord Abersham's activities in Paris."
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Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...